CAIRO — Khaled Hafez — charismatic painter and multi-media artist, in his regular Friday salon or master class with most of a dozen students and colleagues — strikes me off the bat as one of those best friends I’ve never met before. “Aha,” I’m thinking: “This is the man I came to see.”
We called this venture in North Africa “Arab Artists in a Revolution” for all the obvious reasons: that novelists, architects, poets, musicians and painters might each tell us some original truth in the turmoil, something beyond politics and the news cycle. Suddenly Khaled Hafez is driving the point several jumps ahead. Here’s what I’ve been seeing, what you can see in the slide show below:
Art, imagination and expressive freedom still set the pulse of Tahrir Square two winters after the revolt that broke a 30-year dictatorship. That 18-day siege, at grave risk to lives and limbs of hundreds of thousands of citizens without a leader or a plan, makes sense only now as a kind of collective artistic breakthrough: one giant stab in the dark by people at the end of their wits, at the edge of both madness and inspiration. Further, the art and artists that crucially defined the event — in graffiti, Facebook photos and slogans, videos, urban murals still freshened continually overnight — are a peculiar fusion of digital media and Egyptian tradition: we’re seeing tomb paintings at Twitter speed. I was afraid of discovering mere local adaptations of Western hip-hop, rap, comedy, and other imported forms, but how little I knew. Ganzeer’s “wounded cat”— a version of the common Cairo street cat, but equally of Egypt’s sacred symbol of freedom and wary survival — is but one genius instance of a tremendous revival of an Egyptian aesthetic. It is context of all the public cartooning, painting as narrative, pictographs and ideograms, storytelling art in which brush-strokes are not highly refined and painterly process is not the point at all. The art of this revolution, derived straight from mankind’s first paintings and oldest “viral” story-telling tricks, may be the means of keeping the emergency fresh through President Morsi’s ups and downs and long afterward.